The more you read about Arleen’s struggle to find and keep an apartment, the harder it is to believe that just tweaking a city ordinance here or there will save people like her.
Arleen is one of the Milwaukee tenants whom Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond follows in a profound new book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” She lives with her children in the latest of many apartments, a run-down unit whose rent consumes 88 percent of her income. Inevitably, she falls behind, and her landlord, Sherrena, evicts her. Moving from one temporary situation to the next, Arleen loses her possessions and her access to social services. Her kids get jostled from place to place. Her teenage son racks up absences from school.
Just pay your bills already, a middle-class reader might think. But in “Evicted,” Desmond portrays eviction as a systemic problem — part of the fraying of the American social fabric. Housing prices have risen even as wages have stagnated.
At first, Desmond says in an interview in his office, he planned to use eviction as a window into a larger story about poverty. “I thought that it’d be a period at the end of the sentence,” he says. “You get fired, you get evicted, it’s a really bad day.”
“It’s not a bad day,” he adds. “It’s a pretty darn consequential event that can really cast you on a more difficult path.” An eviction becomes an engine of downward mobility — into worse neighborhoods, worse schools, and deeper desperation.
Desmond proposes two solutions. First, he wants tenants to get better legal representation. More fundamentally, he wants to change the economics of housing for poor families, by offering all of them a federal housing voucher. Under existing programs, eligible families pay 30 percent of their income toward rent; the voucher covers the rest. But most poor families don’t get these vouchers.
His proposal could cost upwards of $20 billion a year. Of course, that’s a lot smaller than, say, the mortgage-interest tax deduction, a $70 billion giveaway that showers its greatest benefits upon people with expensive homes. Yet instead of confronting tectonic inequalities in the US economy, we’d rather leave it to local governments to intervene — often clumsily, I’d argue — in the housing market at the municipal level.
In the interview, Desmond stops short of endorsing specific policies for Boston. He’s aiming higher. He wants us to accept, as a nation, what he came to believe in Milwaukee: No one can thrive without a predictable place to live, and millions of people need a lot more help.
Here’s is an edited excerpt of the discussion:
Q: What doesn’t the average person understand about eviction?
DESMOND: Most Americans still believe that the typical low-income family lives in public housing, or benefits from government housing assistance. The opposite is true. Most poor families are living completely unassisted in a private rental market, devoting most of their income to housing. When you meet people who are spending 70, 80 percent of their income on rent, eviction becomes much more of an inevitability than the result of personal irresponsibility.
Q: “Evicted” reminded me of Elizabeth Warren’s work on bankruptcy. Both of you see a larger social phenomenon behind what some consider simply a matter of individual behavior. Is there any connection?
DESMOND: There is a deep connection, when we’re talking about certain market forces and a legal structure that inhibits low- or moderate-income families from getting ahead. Eviction is part of a business model at the bottom of the market.
Q: How so?
DESMOND: Another way of asking that question would be, Isn’t eviction costly and inefficient? And why do landlords tolerate this inefficiency? The short answer is, it’s cheaper to evict a family than to maintain property at code. You can get out of maintaining property at code if the family is behind on rent. Someone like Arleen is going to need to ask for a landlord’s compassion one of these days. So entering into a more adversarial relationship, by summoning the city to come inspect the property, really increases your chances of eviction.
Q: Tenant advocates in Boston are pushing for a just-cause eviction law, some forms of which would restrict when a landlord could evict a tenant. In your book, you focus instead on a broader national proposal for housing vouchers. Why?
DESMOND: The families in the book were always my most important audience. How is this solution going to help Arleen? Is the solution politically viable? Is it big enough to match the size of the problem? And that’s why I came down on the side of this national universal housing program. That was the most efficient way to address the fact that we are bleeding out, for many, many poor families, when it comes to housing.
There are amazing things going on at the local level all over the country. You go to Houston, and they might want to talk about land trusts. You come to Boston, and the conversation is about just-cause eviction. Every city has its own ecosystem, and its own kind of solution.
Q: I have to ask you about Sherrena, whom some people would consider a slumlord. Is she just playing by the rules as they exist? Or is there some kind of moral enlightenment that you’d want her to have?
DESMOND: Sherrena’s a businessperson. If you and I were paying the bills based on rents we were collecting from low-income tenants, I wonder how different we would act. You do see her at turns being generous, and involved in a tenant’s life. And you see her at turns being callous and sometimes neglectful. I don’t think that it’s my place to suggest Sherrena act differently. It’s my job to show you what it’s like for landlords at the bottom of the market. We let ourselves off the hook if we don’t try to put ourselves in her shoes.
Q: Are there other laws that should exist to govern how someone like Sherrena oversees her property?
DESMOND: The book also comes down on right to counsel for folks in civil court. In many housing courts around the country, 90 percent of landlords have lawyers, and 90 percent of tenants don’t. If eviction has these massive consequences that we all pay for, a very smart use of public funds would be to invest in legal services for folks facing eviction.
Q: Was there a moment when you realized that eviction was an issue unto itself, and not just an incidental facet of poverty?
DESMOND: When I went to the statistical data and tried to fact-check a little, that’s when I was like, There’s something happening here. I saw people get fired after their eviction. But when I found that if you get evicted, your chances of losing your job increase by 20 percent, that’s when it really hit home for me.